Fault Lines
22 October 2017

A Killing Accomplishes What Immigration Advocates Couldn’t

July 22, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — What immigrant activists and families have been clamoring for years, the father of a slain pretty young blond woman received in a matter of weeks. On Tuesday, Jim Steinle, the father of Kathryn Steinle, who was shot and killed on a San Francisco pier earlier this month, made an emotional appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee to advocate for immigration reform.

And as the surviving victim of a convicted felon from Mexico who was deported several times from the United States, he might just get his wish.

“Due to disjointed laws and basic incompetence on many levels, the U.S. has suffered a self-inflicted wound in the murder of our daughter,” Steinle told the committee, led by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, one in a long line of Republican lawmakers who have found in the San Francisco tragedy a linchpin to rail against “sanctuary cities,” localities that, under certain circumstances, choose not to cooperate with federal officials enforcing immigration law.

(Notice Steinle’s characterization of his daughter’s death as “murder,” even though Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the suspect in the case, recently pleaded not guilty in the case and the details of the killing remain murky at best. Earlier this month, The Daily Beast stoked the same passions when it called the Steinle killing “the murder shaking San Francisco’s liberal soul.”)

“Legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented immigrant felons off our streets for good,” Steinle added.

And his pleas were heeded immediately, as Grassley introduced legislation the same day seeking to hold municipalities “accountable” for flouting immigration law, by withholding funding from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice destined for crime prevention and equipment for police departments. Nothing like hitting cities where it hurts most.

“Enforcing the immigration laws of the United States is not a voluntary or trivial matter,” Grassley said at the start of the Steinle hearing. “Real lives are at stake. Things cannot continue this way.”

No legislation aimed at saving lives and criminal immigrants would be complete with harsher punishment. And indeed, Grassley’s bill comes with a new mandatory minimum sentence of five years for immigrants who are charged with illegal reentry after a prior deportation. After a “historic” week where the stars seemed to line up for criminal justice reform, it is a wonder whether Grassley is even aware that the charge of illegal reentry is one of the most commonly brought by federal prosecutors. If enacted, there’s simply no telling what his proposal would do for the federal prison population. But when passions run high, no one has time for details.

Compare Grassley’s legislation with recent steps taken by one of the leading sanctuary cities in the country, New York City, which a day earlier announced that it had provided and will continue to provide free legal representation to thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America. That’s on the civil side.

On the criminal side, the city last year approved legislation barring the NYPD and the Department of Corrections from honoring most immigration detainers, the very kind now demonized in San Francisco and by Washington politicians.

The timing of the new detainer policy in the city was golden: It arrived on the heels of a New York ruling — the first of its kind in the state at the time — that declared it illegal for the Department of Correction to hold an immigrant on a federal detainer where there isn’t probable cause or another authority to retain custody.

In that case, a man named Mario Mendoza had been arrested for violating a restraining order. While Mendoza awaited resolution of the case, immigration authorities, believing he was a candidate for deportation, issued a detainer. The day Mendoza’s charges were resolved, the Department of Corrections refused to release him, arguing the detainer required them to keep him in custody. His attorney objected and intervened to have Mendoza released. The judge ruled in Mendoza’s favor and said that his continued detention violated the federal and state constitutions, and ordered his immediate release.

Federal courts have reached similar results. In March of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sided with a Puerto Rican man who was swept up in a drug raid and held on a detainer by immigration authorities for days. The court ruled that immigration detainers cannot be used to require local and state governments to hold persons suspected of being illegally in the country.

And so it goes with this complicated dance between federal immigration policy, criminal law, and the right of states and local governments to provide added protections to its immigrant citizens. No one knows whether Grassley’s legislation and other legislative freakouts will prosper, but one thing’s for sure: When it comes to the thorny issue of immigration and its enforcement, it really matters who is the one asking for reform. And nothing gets politicians moving faster than the right dead victim.

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  • Scott Jacobs
    22 July 2015 at 10:16 am - Reply

    If her death wasn’t murder, wtf was it? Suicide?